The Milwaukee Bucks continue their trek towards the postseason, which is simultaneously creeping up and eons away. We’ve continued to see the adjustments from Bud defensively throughout the season, but the novelty of a switch or a zone has worn off by this point. Or, in the case of that Grizz game, worn out its welcome. Regardless, we are about to get a breath of fresh air with two straight bouts against the Eastern Conference leading, Philadelphia 76ers. As an embedded Bucks fan in the city of Brotherly Love, I’m happy to report spirits are far too high here. I’m looking forward to crushing those dreams (which crumble quickly out here), but we’ve gotta start with what’s been happening. Let’s wrap up.
The Week That Was
- Milwaukee 130, Minnesota 105 (Land of 130 Points)
- Milwaukee 120, Atlanta 109 (Bucks Channel General Sherman)
- Milwaukee 115, Memphis 128 (Grizzlies Out Muscle Bucks)
- Milwaukee 127, Phoenix 128 (Bucks Fall to Suns in OT)
The Minnesota game was a thumping with no Karl-Anthony Towns and the altered start time due to the Daunte Wright shooting. I was heartened to finally see Giannis Antetokounmpo back in uniform for that Atlanta game, and the fact victory had to come at the expense of Trae Young’s shooting splits is just sooo sad. In all honesty, that was a solid team victory that overcame a solid night from deep overall from the Hawks. Gabe describing the Grizzlies game as getting “out-muscled” seems unbelievably apt. Taylor Jenkins just has that team humming at a different frequency, which is partially born out of their situation (a whole crop of young’uns clinging to Playoff dreams) compared to the elder Bucks working towards the postseason.
The Phoenix game was a wire-to-wire rumble that ended on a technicality. Awfully lame call aside, the more frustrating part was the Bucks offense looking completely jumbled down the stretch as they blew a seven-point lead.
We got a parade of Giannis opening sets in this sequence of games, and I was more than happy to see Bud force the issue to their superstar. He hit a quality turnaround jumper against Memphis and clanged a less than ideal look against Phoenix, but the Atlanta Hawks opening set struck the sweetest tune with me. Take a look at this series of movements that ends with the undersized Solomon Hill trying to stick with the mammoth Antetokounmpo. Eventually, Giannis’s patient post moves pay off.
It starts with Giannis bringing the ball up and doing the usual, casual handoff with a player coming up from the wing, Jrue Holiday in this case. With Donte DiVincenzo out of the lineup, it became incumbent upon Bryn Forbes to fill the “dirty work” role. Eventually, after a few other flips, the ball ends with Lopez above the break surveying the court before he’ll dish to Middleton in a hot minute.
At that point, it’s incumbent upon Forbes to set a screen for Giannis diving along the baseline. It deters Hill enough that he gets a bit deterred, but more importantly it allows Giannis to get real deep underneath the basket on Middleton’s side. It’s a needle thread of a lob though, with just enough air to get it into Antetokounmpo’s awaiting arms. Once he gets his butt into Hill, it’s basically over.
Giannis is so good at tiptoeing along the baseline while still barreling his broad bum into a defender’s gut. After a few nimble dribbles, his length lets him contort his arm into the finger roll finish on the other side of the rim. Holiday holds Huerter at bay, Lopez has forced Capela to stick on the perimeter rather than block Giannis as a help defender and Trae Young standing in the paint is just performative. Giannis stuck the landing.
On the StruggleBucks
There’s no reason to call this Bucks team on the struggle bus overall, but the Suns loss struck a very particular nerve. As Giannis Antetokounmpo stood 35 feet away from the basket, eyeing up the Phoenix defense in the waning seconds of Monday’s game, I doubt anyone felt confident about what was about to transpire. The Greek Freak drove triumphantly to the tin...and fell flat on his face. As faithful soldiers are trained to do, the rest of the team followed suit to end regulation and overtime.
Khris Middleton airballed an awful look on an inbounds play. Giannis got hurt in OT. Scrambling triples from role players were the only reason they made it close. Then, the team that rarely fouls opponents, lost on a controversial foul call late. On paper, this team appears better constructed to avoid collapse. Right now, it feels like they’re still playing in a straw hut.
I covered the clutch stats in last week’s wrap-up, which overall paint the Bucks as fairly decent. And there’s still an entire postseason by which we’ll judge this team, but it’s become impossible to ignore the frustrating way that this team hasn’t been able to prevail against the upper echelon of the league.
Against teams I would deem contenders (Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Utah, Phoenix, LAC, LAL and Denver Nuggets), the Milwaukee Bucks are 4-8. One of those wins came without Embiid, the other against a Lakers team with no LeBron James or Anthony Davis. In fairness, the team did play a few of those losses without Jrue Holiday, but this season has turned into an unceasing knot of injury absences. I can’t keep track anymore.
Against teams with a top-ten point (per 100 possessions) differential, the Bucks are 7-10, per Cleaning The Glass. The only team among the list of contenders above with a worse winning percentage is the Los Angeles Lakers, who sit at 6-13 in those games, although I’m not sure how many came without LeBron/AD. Cleaning The Glass also has Milwaukee’s expected wins at 7.8 against that competition, so they haven’t drastically underplayed their expected performance. For the past few years, we’re used to the Bucks winning those contests. They went 12-10 in 2019-20 against teams with a top-ten point differential, and 15-8 in 2018-19.
We’ve been able to sell ourselves on the “experimentation” aspect of this season, which has yielded plenty of fruitful results. They’re clearly better equipped to switch, they have a bonafide third option come crunch time and Holiday can lock down an opposing team’s star with the best of them. And yet, coming up on the wrong side of the ledger repeatedly can’t help but feel demoralizing as a fanbase with the Playoffs looming.
The “Let if fly” mantra was cute a few years ago, but we’re in year three of flying. It might be time to clip some players’ wings. I’m mostly talking about the early shot clock pull-ups and deep triples that don’t even include a semblance of offensive flow. I know there’s a fine line with shotclock data, but the Bucks are second in the league in terms of percentage of “very early” shots (within 22-18 on the shotclock) at 16.3%. Their 59.3 effective field goal percentage is bottom ten within that criteria. Now, that’s technically a better eFG% than within 18-15 seconds (58.7%), but I can’t help but find myself rolling my ragu eyes when Donte DiVincenzo dribbles the ball up, and pulls up from deep after a perfunctory screen to start the set.
That sort of laissez-faire attitude took over the unflappable Jrue Holiday late in the Phoenix game, when he forced a pull-up three and tough shot low just moments after he drove to the hoop to put the Bucks up 109-102 with a dunk. Meanwhile, on the other end, the Suns operated like a seasoned chef. There were some scrambling shots, and outstanding shotmaking over defended shots, but Chris Paul and his sous chefs put immense pressure on the Bucks defense. On the other end, the Bucks looked more like a garage band, freestyling in hopes of delivering an open perimeter shooter or an iso jumperan i. This is one of those frustrating Holiday shots. He may as well have just done a stepback jumper for all the separation this action gets him. On top of that, this shot immediately turned into a transition opportunity for the other team to score.
The Bucks offense devolved into isolation plays late, which is okay! That happens late across the NBA, not every team can really run sets as the clocks running down. But when you’re running a read-and-react offense that preys on teams in transition, and your superstar isn’t a traditional bucket-getter, I’d prefer to see a smidgen more creativity baked into late-game sets.
We’re one month away from the Playoffs. The frustrating losses against quality opponents have mounted, even if many of them have been narrow. BUT, there are still four games left against the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets that would go a long way towards boosting confidence. The first of those two matchups tip off this week. Even if they lose both Philly games, there’s no reason to write off the Bucks. I’ll be despondent having to face the parade of jeers in Philly, but the postseason is still a different animal. Still, I certainly won’t feel all that comfortable that this Bucks team is suited for that survival of the fittest stretch come May. A cavalier quality won’t cut it anymore. The team’s worked all year to build up to when the games matter most. Their plan was to peak when the postseason arrives. Well, it’s almost here, and they’ve still got some climbing to do.
Finally, we have the MVP back on our life. Bobby Portis found his way atop the weekly MVP leaderboard last week, which feels like a positive nod to the surprisingly effective season he’s had. But the real Bucks are back, and it’s time to restore the proper pecking order and candidates to fill out this poll. Let’s see who you’ve got this time.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (3 GP: 25.3 pts, 8.0 reb, 4.0 ast, 1.3 stl)
The Greek Freak's top plays last night:— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) April 20, 2021
33 PTS | 8 REB | 2 AST | 1 BLK | 1 STL pic.twitter.com/5m2xMUe59L
Khris Middleton (4 GP: 19.8 pts, 7.3 reb, 7.3 ast, 1.5 stl)
Khris in 25 minutes:— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) April 14, 2021
27 PTS | 8 REB | 7 AST | 9/15 FG pic.twitter.com/xGJver1kMi
Jrue Holiday (4 GP: 20.0 pts, 4.0 reb, 6.5 ast, 2.0 stl)
Jrue put in some work:— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) April 16, 2021
23 PTS | 7 AST | 4 REB | 1 STL pic.twitter.com/5R3q8bYFq7
Week 16: The Bucks MVP was...
This poll is closed
This poll will close at noon on Thursday, April 22.
As always, thanks for reading the wrap-up. Next week’s edition will be a truncated version, with my usual in-depth struggleBucks feature shifted to its own standalone article.